We have long assumed that medieval sermons were written for the laity, that is, those with no Latin and probably minimal literacy. But most of the sermons that survive in English contain a significant amount of Latin. What did a medieval lay person understand when he or she heard a sermon?
The function of such Latin is just one part of the blurry picture we have of the nature of medieval literacy. Walter Map (1140-1210) described a boy he knew whose family was clearly of some means (the boy later became a knight) who was, on the one hand, illiteratus, but on the other hand was praised for his penmanship because he “knew how to transcribe any series of letters whatever.” Margery Kempe says in the book she wrote, by dictating her words to a priest, that she is “not lettryd,” but that book describes how she was hit on the head by masonry in a church while she has “hir boke in hir hand,” and her book itself contains Latin quotations she should not have been able to understand. And then there are sermons like this, that are really in neither English nor Latin, but the two together, neatly balanced:
Quamdiu clerus and the laife huius terre werknet togedur in uno fagot and brendonn super istum ignem, istud regnum was ful warme and ful wel at hese. Caritas brande so hote the ley of love was so huge quod no Scottich miste ne no Frensche scouris quierunt extinguere istam flammam.[As long as clergy and the laity of this land worked together in one bundle and burned with that fire, that kingdom was wholly warm and well at ease. Charity burned so hotly and the law of love was so great that no Scottish mist nor French showers could extinguish that flame]
One theory about such sermons is that they were preached to a bilingual audience (perhaps in a monastery), but even the image in this sermon evokes a much broader competence: just as the very syntax of Latin and English are merged here the very existence of such sermons suggests that the abilities of the clergy and laity may have been more generally entwined than we have tended to suppose.
Many sermons were preached, just as they are today, to mixed audiences of varying occupations and social classes. We don’t know the origins of another important sermon, which survives in a Trinity College, Cambridge, manuscript, but it is typical enough in form for us to presume that its intended audience was also typical. Furthermore, even though this text is what is usually described and edited as an “early English” sermon the whole of its first sentence – “Hec est dies quam fecit dominus exulatemus & letemur in ea” – is in Latin.
We might also assume that this sentence was incomprehensible to its intended audience because that sentence is instantly translated in full: “This dai haveth ure drihten maked to gladien and to blissen us.” [This day our lord has made to gladden us and to cause us to rejoice.]
But the sermon also continues to weave Latin sentences of this kind throughout so that, in the end, it contains nearly as much Latin as English. Moreover, although explanations are almost always given in English, clarification does not always come by means of translation. When the priest explains the meaning of the baptismal gown, for example, he describes it first in Latin, “Vestis innocencie restituitur in baptismo dicente sacerdote: Accipe uestem candidam immaculatam” [The clothing of innocence is restored in baptism with the priest saying: Take here this white, unstained gown], and then in English,
Lothlesnesse understondeth the man at his folcninge. And that bitocneth the crisme cloth the the prest biwindeth that child mide. And thus seith: Underfo shrud with and clene. This shrud haveth ech man on him after his fulcninge.[The man understands his innocence at his baptism. And the chrism cloth, which the priest wraps the child in, symbolizes that. And he says thus: Take this pure shroud. Each man has this shroud on him after his baptism.]
but it is the concept of the baptismal gown and its meaning that are carried from one language to the other, not the sense, word for word or even phrase for phrase. One could even assume that the priest is here assuming that his parishioners understood the Latin his English then more extensively elaborates.
So, perhaps, looking at such English sermons we might not have to wonder about how much of them the laity understood after all. The very bulk of the carefully explicated Latin they contain could itself have produced the very bundling of competence that the sermon here describes. When a priest provides as much Latin as he did in a sermon like this one, and translates most of it line by line as he goes, he was not just preaching, he was teaching his congregation. Sitting in church, listening to the Latin of scripture or the liturgy, the laity heard a language that was not so different from the English they heard every day because sermons just like scripture had taught them, Sunday by Sunday, and year by year, how to understand it.
Featured image: Church Dom Chapel by Tama66. Public Domain via Pixabay.